Monday, April 30, 2007

The Eternal Cover Art Debate

In this week's Publishers Weekly were three successive right-page ads for the new Orbit SF/Fantasy line (launching in September), showing off their covers. Now, I'd seen a few of these covers before, and I knew Orbit was going in this direction, but this was the first time the art look for the whole line had been made public (I think).

I don't think anyone will mind if I post my scans of those ads here -- but, if anyone out there from Hachette/Orbit does mind, please e-mail me, and I'll take them down. This should be considered promotion and buzz-building, I think, but I don't own this stuff, and will defer to those who do.

Anyway, on to the scans. (I believe that, if you click on them, you'll get the larger versions.) My opinions on cover art are pretty well known by now, so I'll refrain from any commentary. But I think you can imagine what I'd say...

The End of National Poetry Month

I started National Poetry Month by posting my favorite short poem, A.E. Housman's "Terrence, This Is Stupid Stuff," so it's only fitting that I end the month by posting part of my favorite long poem.

I don't know what the reputation of William Carlos Williams's Paterson is in the wider world, and I don't much care. I discovered it in college, in a 20th Century poetry course, and it hit me like a thunderbolt. It's an epic, but not an epic of a man -- it's the story of a city, of a people, told in the big American voice of the modern age. It's one of the very few works of poetry that I come back to again and again -- and not just because it's about my part of the world.

Here's the "Preface" from Book I of Paterson. If it intrigues you at all, go buy the book -- I may be biased, but I think this is as good as 20th century poetry gets. (And I hope the f-ing hard spaces I've coded in by hand twice to get the lines to start in the right places actually stay this time.)

Paterson: Book I


"Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?"
To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means--
Sniffing the trees,
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. What
else is there? and to do?
The rest have run out--
after the rabbits.
Only the lame stands--on
three legs. Scratch front and back.
Deceive and eat. Dig
a musty bone
For the beginning is assuredly the end--since we know nothing, pure
and simple, beyond
our own complexities.

Yet there is
no return: rolling up out of chaos,
a nine months' wonder, the city
the man, an identity--it can't be
interpenetration, both ways. Rolling
up! obverse, reverse;
the drunk the sober; the illustrious
the gross; one. In ignorance
a certain knowledge and knowledge,
undispersed, its own undoing.

(The multiple seed,
packed tight with detail, soured,
is lost in the flux and the mind,
distracted, floats off in the same

Rolling up, rolling up heavy with
It is the ignorant sun
rising in the slot of
hollow suns risen, so that never in this
world will a man live well in his body
save dying--and not know himself
dying; yet that is
the design. Renews himself
thereby, in addition and subtraction,
walking up and down.

and the craft,
subverted by thought, rolling up, let
him beware lest he turn to no more than
the writing of stale poems . . .

Minds like beds always made up,
(more stony than a shore)
unwilling or unable.

Rolling in, top up,
under, thrust and recoil, a great clatter:
lifted as air, boated, multicolored, a
wash of seas --
from mathematics to particulars--
divided as the dew,
floating mists, to be rained down and
regathered into a river that flows
and encircles:

shells and animacules
generally and so to man,

to Paterson.

Oh, maybe just a few more snippets:
--Say it, no ideas but in things--
nothing but the black faces of the house
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident--
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained--
secret--into the body of the light!
The preceding quote and the following one are both from the beginning of Book I, "The Delineaments of the Giants."

A man like a city and a woman like a flower
--who are in love. Two women. Three women.
Innumerable women, each like a flower.

only one man--like a city.

In Which I Apologize for Something I Didn't Get Around to Doing

I don't know if other bloggers do this, but I keep various things unread in Bloglines, thinking that I'll want to respond to them eventually. (I have a reference to Brandon Sanderson's "Hey, why don't all of you chaps buy the really expensive version of my books instead?!" essay still hanging around, waiting for me to put my thoughts into a form that wouldn't piss off everyone who read it.) Sometimes I even create a dummy draft post here to remind myself.

Well, a bit more than "sometimes," actually. At the moment, I have thirty-two draft posts. Eight are in some process of being written -- some more than others; "I Am Not Calvin Trillin's Son-in-Law" is basically sitting there empty waiting for me to have the time and inclination -- two are awaiting the proper day, six are potential "Quotes of the Week," and the remaining sixteen are publishable immediately. Most of those are reprints of rec.arts.sf.written posts, stored up for slow days, but three or four are things I've been too chicken smart to post so far.

Anyway, for a while I had a empty draft called "Aesthetics of Fantasy, My Foot," in which I was going to demolish Jonathan McCalmont's two-part essay. (My draft was empty, though, because I'd only skimmed the first part quickly, and hadn't really looked at the second part at all.) McCalmont struck me as a self-centered, windy, deliberately obnoxious curmudgeon who wrote over-ornate sentences and wasn't nearly as clear a thinker as he thought he was.

(Can you see where I'm going with this? It took me a while to get it myself...)

Eventually the Clue Stick descended heavily on my head and I realized McCalmont was exactly the same sort of blogger as I was, and that was what annoyed me. (A similar realization hit me about William Lexner, previously -- though I think Lexner really is trying to be incredibly obnoxious, while people like me and McCalmont just come off that way sometimes.)

So I've moved McCalmont into the mental category of "curmudgeons who occasionally annoy me but who I want to take seriously," joining such excellent company as Barry Malzberg and Norman Spinrad (mostly for his book reviews, which I don't read as often as I should these days). That doesn't mean that I won't post a "look at this stupid thing someone said" essay about any of them -- that seems, for better or worse, to be a lot of what I do here -- but I hope it means that I'll take the idea seriously first...and only then reject it out of hand.

I want to apologize to Mr. McCalmont for what I didn't do; I would have done it in bad faith, and I'm glad I didn't. (But, if I ever get time to seriously study that essay, I expect I'll find some things I violently disagree with.)

I wrote this earlier this morning, and let it sit a few hours, to make sure I wasn't still being an obnoxious twerp, and then I came across McCalmont's long post from Saturday night about kinds of reviews and the standards that should be in place. And I not only agree with it, it makes me want to read more of his criticism. So maybe he's not even as obnoxious as I am -- that wouldn't be difficult.

Is It Worth Going to TuckerCon?

When I planned my convention attendance for this year, I knew that my company would not spring to send me to Japan for Nippon 2007 -- and that's smart of them, since I'd have no business to conduct there and I expect I'd be about the biggest dumb, clumsy gaijin you can imagine. (Yes, I kind of want to go, but, unless I win the lottery, it's not happening.)

So, instead, I decided to go to the NASFiC, what I usually call the Emergency Backup Worldcon. It's in St. Louis this year and seems to be more-or-less the local con (Archon), blown up slightly. But then I heard all kinds of less-than-good stories about TuckerCon, particularly non-standard hotel credit-card-charging practices. And so I've fallen back into indecision.

Have any of you folks out there made TuckerCon plans yet? It this going to be a decent-sized NASFiC (the only one I've been to was Conucopia in Anaheim in 1999, which felt more like a large region than a small Worldcon), or just Archon 31 with a few extra program items bolted onto it?

And, if I don't go to TuckerCon, should I go somewhere else instead? (Maybe Capclave or Balticon?) If I'm adding a con, I'd prefer it to be something driveable.

Decision, decisions.

Update, 4/30: Now I'm thinking I might go to the Locus Awards instead; I've never been to Seattle (much less the SF Museum), and a SFBC book is actually nominated this year, so I have a good excuse. Anyone know what kind of s shin-dig the SFM and Locus usually throw?

Mythologizing the Past

A lot of otherwise very intelligent people often forget that the origins of science fiction as a genre are in the mucky pulp swamp of Hugo Gernsback's fiction for engineers. SF was never primarily a genre of the startling and new; it was always adventure stories with Kewl Science Stuff in it.

We forget our past at our own peril.

Movie Log: The Queen

The Wife and I put on our best pearls and sat down with our corgis Wednesday night to watch The Queen, and, at the risk of someone hitting me, I will say that we were amused.

Perhaps I should mention my individual biases, first. I think public displays of emotion, particular manufactured ones and most particularly overwrought "grief" over celebrities one has never met, are the besetting evil of the modern day, and that Diana's death was the nadir of that loathsome practice. I also always thought Diana was a pretty enough young woman, though clearly quite dim, who was just lucky enough to be an outgoing person married into a family of introverts -- I've never understood her cultish following.

So I spent most of the movie on Queen Elizabeth's "side," and finding the "mourners" to be ridiculously overwrought and borderline hysterical (as I did the first time around). Maybe I'm weird or old-fashioned, but I didn't think there was anything extraordinary about the Queen's idea that grief is a private matter for the family.

The movie itself is quite good of its type (the history-based character drama), and Mirren absolutely disappears into the role; I forgot it was her several times while watching. Everyone else in it is quite good, too, though I have to admit I didn't recognize any of them except James Cromwell as a very crotchety Prince Phillip. The family dynamics are very believable and interesting, particularly the passive-aggressive Prince Charles, who seems to be trying to surreptitiously better his own position with the public without doing anything overt.

But this is really a movie about the Queen and the PM, so we bounce back and forth between them. It's a pretty conventional story -- they come to understand each other better, and move towards each other's positions -- but it's handled well, and Mirren's performance is amazing. She's in well over half of the shots in the movie; it's very much her film.

(Now I'd like to see a movie about the UK press barons, who cynical Mr. Hornswoggler expects manipulated and exploited public emotion not only to sell a lot of papers (which is their job), but to draw attention away from the fact that it was a flock of paparazzi who helped cause the car-crash in the first place.)

This is probably not a movie for royalty-haters, or those who believe in big weepy public displays of emotion. But, for those of us who are decent, upstanding people, it's well worth the two hours or so.

Context Is For the Weak

You folks know that noted Internet fan/gadfly/personality James Nicoll is a freelance reader for the SFBC, right? Well, in my in-box this morning, as part of a much longer document about something I'm not going to explain, was this gem:
I protest the deprimatization of the DC Universe – if gorillas and monkeys were good enough for Julius Schwartz, they should be good enough for us!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Another Sign of the (Literary) Apocalypse

The Orion Group in the UK (under Malcolm Edwards, whom I'd always regarded as one of the Enlightened Ones of publishing, since he's an old SF hand) is editing down classics to make them easier to read.

One quote (about Edwards):
He admitted that he had never read Middlemarch and had tried but failed to get through Moby Dick several times, while a colleague owned up to skipping Vanity Fair.
OK, I am officially not going to consider British educations as superior to my own anymore, since I've read all three of those books, and loved two of them. I even read Moby Dick for pleasure during the second half of my senior year of college, since I suddenly realized that I wasn't going to get it assigned anywhere. (And I'll accept that Middlemarch has its virtues, even if I found it difficult at best to discern them.)

The launch titles of the Compact Editions (the first of 50-100 titles, if these folks get their way) are Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick and Wives and Daughters, all coming in June. The second batch -- Bleak House, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, North and South and The Portrait of a Lady -- follow in September.

Let's see: I've read at least seven of those (assuming North and South is the Elizabeth Gaskell novel, and not the John Jakes one), which makes me some kind of literary whiz-kid, I guess. Actually, I'm amazed to think that anyone feels the need to read even one Elizabeth Gaskell novel in this day and age -- let alone two of them -- but it takes all kinds to make a world. She must be more popular in the UK than over here, I guess.

And perhaps I'm being too harsh on this series; if they concentrated entirely on Henry James novels, and edited them down to a page or less, they would perform a valuable service to the world. (Have I mentioned my favorite literary joke in this context? James was such an unrepentant Anglophile that it's only fitting that his career can be divided into three phases: James the First, James the Second, and the Old Pretender.)

But, all of my attacks on that old loser aside, this project just looks silly: who wants to read half of David Copperfield? If the point of reading classics is to have the enjoyment of them, then you've missed that. And if the point of reading classics is to recognize references to them and feel smarter, than a good "Cliff's Notes" would be much better than reading an edited half of the book.

This is just too bizarre for words.

[via Editors Unleashed]

Incoming Books, week of 4/29

No, I haven't been forgetting to list books that came in; there just haven't been any for a few weeks (and that's getting me antsy -- yes, I have probably a thousand or more older books that I haven't read, but I still want new stuff coming in's a sickness, I tell you).

But this week, there were a few:
  • Boomsday by Christopher Buckley
  • Path of the Assassin, Vol. 6: Life's Greatest Difficulty by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
    Just for the record, I'm now three volumes behind on reading this series. I'm going to pretend it's all part of a Cunning Plan to read a lot of them in order to make keeping track of the complicated plots and counter-plots easier...
  • Crying Freeman, Vol. 1 by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami
    I've been meaning to try this series for at least a couple of years -- this time, since, during the aborted late '80s manga boom, I also kept thinking I'd want to try it -- since I've liked Koike's historical series (most famously Lone Wolf and Cub) and Ikegami's art was quite good on Mai the Psychic Girl (the only thing of his I've seen).
  • Alias the Cat by Kim Deitch
    I've read the first two-thirds of this as individual comics issues, and I'm really looking forward to sitting down with the whole thing. Deitch is one of the geniuses of modern comics, and he doesn't get the attention he deserves.

The Great Mundane SF Novels!

This was not my idea -- I was commenting on my elves are different -- but I had to copy 'n' paste my comment here, so it will count as a post:

Hm, no one's said Dune yet. (No, an ordinary dune.)

And who can forget those great Heinlein juveniles!
Ship Galileo
Blue-Green Planet
Farmer on the Ground
Between Parts of The Same Planet
The Stones That Stay in the Same Place
Sustainable Development Jones
The Locally Grown Beast
Tunnel in the Bering Sea
Time for the Next Town Over
Citizen of a Sensible Local Council
Have Appropriate Working Tools, Will Walk Within City Limits
Aeroplane Troopers
Podkayne of Toronto

She's an Academic...Not a Clearly Insane Person

Locus Online has posted a very long screed by someone named Marleen Barr, in which she seems to be saying that Cho Seung-Hui's murderous rampage at Virginia Tech last week was some sort of transgressive strike at the patriarchal, hegemonic Republican culture of the area on behalf of science fiction and The Other.

(Yeah, really.)

Her second, less controversial point is that the murders shouldn't stop the teaching of genre fiction at universities in the USA. (I think. She's not very clear, even for an academic.)

Sample sentences, only slightly less coherent than the whole:
Even if Duesseldorf is rather devoid of Jews, it is also devoid of cows.

The typical Tech faculty member and administrator looks like a clone of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld — or Karen Hughes.

I believe that he carefully studied the Virginia Tech class schedule with an eye toward finding foreign-associated professors who would be concurrently teaching in close proximately.

Hence, in addition to choosing Hilscher because she too looks like an alien, I think that Cho Seung-Hui picked a female to be his first victim in order to make a statement about how Tech responds to that which is Other in relation to white male patriarchy.

Cho Seung-Hui, who prepared for his role as mass murder by doing body building exercises, turned himself into the symbol of the alien foreign born immigrant Other in relation to America who succeeded in America beyond all reasonable expectation: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Livestock are housed behind the Duck Pond. Will the sheep look up?

I know that to this day genre fiction haters are alive and well and living in the Virginia Tech English department.
This is the point where I normally would rant and holler and attack Ms. Barr's argument. Unfortunately, she has no argument, just a very perverse point of view utterly untethered to reality. Ms. Barr, you desperately need the help of mental health professionals; I hope you get it, and soon.

I did get the impression that if the dead had been more representative of the local "almost monolithic white population," she would not have been nearly as unhappy.

(And, for someone who calls herself a feminist, she has the odd habit of calling women by their first names and men by their full or last names.)

And now every single possible point of view has hijacked this horrible event for its own outside purposes. They should all be ashamed, though of course they won't be.

But, most of all, I'm appalled that Locus Online would post such a bizarre, incoherent essay. It's doubly exploitative to do so: it exploits the real horror at VT, and exploits a woman who is clearly delusional.

And if she's at all representative of the people teaching university students about genre fiction in this country, then it's long past time to get SF back into the gutters, where it belongs. Some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without.

Update, 4/25: I didn't mention the fact that Barr's letter was also a thinly-veiled advertisement for her novel Oy, Pioneer, since that was just tacky, rather than insane. But she's now apparently burning up the PR wires for Pioneer, leading to this Gawker article.

Final Update, 4/29:
Locus has published several comments on Ms. Barr's letter, and the "final" one (their term) by Dr. Carl Glover sums up the whole thing nicely. I won't attempt to paraphrase it, but he answers each of Ms. Barr's specious and self-serving points, and refutes them all. I'm still not sure why Locus published Ms. Barr's letter in the first place, though.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ruminations on the "Old Man's War"-iverse

I've been reading John Scalzi's new novel The Last Colony this week [meaning "last week" -- Ed.], and thinking an awful lot (too much, I expect) about the background. I hope no one takes this as an attack -- I only worry this much about books I'm really enjoying -- but I'm sure, in the inevitable Internet fashion, that someone will misread me.

(This is why my post "Things That Annoy Me About Darkover" is still sitting in limbo months after I wrote it; I might post it someday, but I can't say when.)

Anyway, I wrote this list of questions about the universe of Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony, mostly when I was only about a third of the way into the book. After finishing it, I went back through the list and added further thoughts (or answers) in bold italics. I tried to avoid spoilers for Colony, but if you're particularly sensitive to the things, go read something else. Also, if your opinions regarding "worldbuilding" at all resemble those of a Mr. Harrison of West London, you'll wonder why anyone would care if the background of a novel makes sense, and so this is probably not worth your time.

Oh, and, again: I question because I love. Really.
  1. I'm not sure if it's important or not that all of the planets seem to float randomly in space, unconnected to anything else. We never hear about the other bodies in those systems, and only rarely the names of their suns. Yes, habitable worlds will likely come only one to a system (where we find them at all), but surely the rest of those systems will have something of interest or use? Scalzi's space-travel system sometimes feels like a subway: it zips from one planet to another, with no reference to the intervening space. Is this a bug or a feature?
    I think this is just an indication of the story Scalzi wants to tell: it's about people on planets. (And maybe also is part of the Classic-SF flavor.)
  2. Similarly, in a galaxy this crowded, why is everyone so ridiculously focused on planets? There are plenty of other places to live, and, once you're already in space, they can be cheaper to make habitable, easier to hide, and at least as defensible.
    Somewhat answered by a character in the story, but, again, I think it's also that this is an old-fashioned kind of skiffy future.
  3. I am dumbfounded that there's even the possibility of "wildcat colonies." Surely there aren't any empty habitable worlds? The existence of those worlds implies, very strongly, that some part of The Accepted Explanation -- the galaxy is full of alien races, all competing with each other for basically the same planets, all basically at the same technological level, all essentially agreeing to fight in the same ways, some of whom must be gaining territory and some of whom must be losing it, all of whom operate as separate entities rather than forming Uplift-esque families -- is wrong. In a galaxy like the one this is supposed to be, every inhabitable planet would necessarily be inhabited now, have been inhabited for probably geological spans of time, and many of them would bear the marks of repeated acts of genocide by successive successfully invading races. The apparent plenitude of empty planets is really weird; if they're common, then the competition for them shouldn't be as strong.
    Asked and answered, from a different angle. I don't quite buy it, though. The multi-race civilization just doesn't feel as old, complex and alien as I'd expect; a galaxy this full should have been through every possible permutation of empire/federation/anarchy several times by now, and some of the races would be old enough to have lived through a few cycles of that.
  4. Unless (he thought, adding a conspiratorial note) no one has bothered to survey for habitable planets for some long period of time (since they already know where everything is), and the old survey is wrong, either by mistake or malice.
    Not quite the explanation Scalzi went for.
  5. Scalzi seems to be writing a kinder, gentler version of a Stephen Baxter universe, and I can't quite figure our why it would be kinder or gentler. It seems like there needs to be a reason why the struggle isn't much nastier and bloodier than it appears to be.
    Partially asked and answered, but...not to be overly bloody-minded about it, but there just isn't as much genocide in this universe as there should be.
  6. According to p.57 of Last Colony, there have been a lot of human colonies launched in the last twenty-five years. Who used to live on those worlds? Are the human Colonial Defense Forces really that good? Have they wiped out some alien race we're not told about? Or were all of those planets really empty? (And does that mean the other nearby races also have been colonizing a similar number of planets?)
    Asked and answered, later in the book.
  7. Oh, and, if there's any explanation as to why no alien race conquered Earth, slaughtered us all, and turned our home into their own colony some time in the last forty thousand years, I missed it. Again, in a galaxy this crowded and competitive, every inhabitable planet has got to be on the table.
    Answered by implication, later in the book.
  8. There's also the question of how big a planet is, which is often a problem in adventure SF. These planets don't feel all that big -- it's possible that's because they're only thinly populated, or populated in just a few spots, and they're expected to fill up over the next few centuries. It's never explicitly stated, but I imagine that one of the reasons to have as many colonies as possible is so that some of them can be lost to invading aliens without seriously damaging the human race. Or, possibly, the colonies are there to hold space before another race can grab it. (Which inevitably leads back to the question of why these empty planets are there to be grabbed.) But Scalzi explicitly says in Last Colony that new colonies only take about ten million people before they're more-or-less closed, and ten million people is tiny for a planet. (I'm writing this in a city that has that many people in it.)
    Never comes up; these planets do all feel quite small, and the newer colonies are tiny.
  9. This might just be me making up my own backstory, but the way this all makes sense to me is if there was recently (up to a final collapse four or five hundred years ago, say), a very powerful race holding a big piece of the galaxy and forbidding any of its rivals to interfere in its sphere of influence. If they took a long time to decay and wither from within (on the order of tens of thousands of years), that would allow Earth (and maybe other local intelligent races) to rise up on their own worlds and head out into space just in time for the big land rush we see in these books. But the timing, even if something like that was the case, would have to be awfully convenient.
    I shouldn't comment about what the explanations are, but I've probably been thinking too much along David Brin lines.
  10. On p.89, it's implicit that there are enough empty worlds in this local area that searching them all would be non-trivial. (Actually, given how easy space travel is in this series, I'd guess there must be either an astounding number of empty, habitable planets -- which is contrary to what we're explicitly told -- or that the characters are ignoring how easy it would be to search through a limited number of planets.)
  11. My, the Colonial Union has an unlikely stranglehold over all means of inter-personal communications, even for times of war. It's like there's no equivalent of the telephone in this society; even if the government censors all official communication (or especially if they do), there are going to be massive rumor mills and samizdat channels.
  12. And how is this government organized, anyway? Is there some vestige of democracy behind it? (I wouldn't expect more than one party, given the CU's control of all media.) We do see a society that runs far too efficiently to be a realistic single-party state. (And, given that Certain Folks claim this series is horribly right-wing, militaristic, and Heinleinian, I find it amusing that a very strong case can be made that the CU is a Stalinist dictatorship that actually works according to plan.)
  13. Oh, one last thing: how big is this section of the galaxy, which has over four hundred intelligent races, each with a number of colony planets? (Earth alone has seventeen, for example.) Add in all of the empty worlds, and...what kind of size are we talking about, here? Is this a small region with a lot of habitable planets, or a huge piece of the galaxy with inhabitable worlds much farther apart?

Last Colony does answer some of those questions, though not directly. I think I was asking the wrong questions about this universe, and Scalzi has said that he's not going to come back here quickly (if ever), so this was more pointless than most of my posts...

Friday, April 27, 2007

In Which I Am Proud Of My Older Son's Good Taste In Music

I don't obsess about my kids much here -- which is odd, really, since I obsess about everything else -- so I hope you'll indulge me for once. I'd made a new mix CD this spring, mostly for Thing 1 (he has a CD boom-box in his room, and is more focused on music than his brother -- or his mother, most of the time). The Wife also appreciates it if I make new music available for the boys, so that she's not listening to the same thing over and over again as she drives them all over creation in the car.

So, anyway, at bedtime tonight, I asked Thing 1 what his favorite song on the new CD was. (Well, I knew his most favorite: that's the opening song, "Kaze ni Naru" by Ayano Tsuji, which is the closing credits theme from The Cat Returns -- he went happy-nuts when he found out I had that song, and was thrilled when I said I'd make a CD around that song for him.) But the song he liked second best was "Demolition" by The Kinks, a really kick-ass tune from their prime years (the record right before they fell over into self-parody the first time, actually). I put that one on the CD half-hoping he wouldn't hate it, but mostly because I love it, and wanted something really good in the middle of a disc I was pretty sure I'd be hearing a lot.

My older son may be weird, but I think he has the glimmerings of good taste. (As much of it as I can expect from a nine-year-old, at least.)

Oh, hell, let me waste some space here by listing the complete line-up of the CD I called "2007 [Thing 1] Birthday" (most of my previous mix CDs were tied to trips to Hershey Park, and so were titled things like "Hershey Mix 2005," so I was keeping up the naming convention).
  1. Ayano Tsuji/Kaze ni Naru
  2. Cracker/The Good Life
  3. Thomas Dolby/Hyperactive!
  4. Adam and the Ants/Antmusic
  5. Duran Duran/Wild Boys
  6. The Daddy Warhols/Boys Better
  7. Talking Heads/Once in a Lifetime
  8. Elvis Costello/The Imposter
  9. Chris Mars/Popular Creeps
  10. Guadalcanal Diary/Litany (Life Goes On)
  11. Midnight Oil/The Dead Heart
  12. Jason & the Scorchers/Take Me Home, Country Roads
  13. Richard Thompson/I Ain't Going to Drag My Feet No More
  14. Jimi Hendrix Experience/All Along the Watchtower
  15. The Kinks/Demolition
  16. The Pogues/South Australia
  17. Los Lobos/La Bamba
  18. Modest Mouse/Float On
  19. Ramones/I Don't Wanna Grow Up
  20. Faith No More/Epic
  21. Fountains of Wayne/Better Things
(Oh, the other song he's crazy about right now, from a Fountains of Wayne compilation CD I made for The Wife -- and which I didn't really intend for her to play with the boys around, honestly -- is "Maureen," which is not something I would have played for him on purpose, though, luckily, so far the matter of the song is flying over his head...)

Quote of the Week

"Science fiction, for all its trappings, its talk of 'new horizons' and 'new approaches' and 'thinking things through from the beginning' and 'new literary excitement,' is a very conservative form of literature. It is probably more conservative than westerns, mysteries, or gothics, let alone that most reactionary of all literatures, pornography. Most of its writers and editors are genuinely troubled by innovative styles or concepts at the outset, because they have a deep stake by the time they have achieved any position in the field in not appearing crazy. This was certainly true in 1969 when the field was still a minor if marginally respectable genre. It is more true yet at the beginning of the eighties when it has becomes, for a concatenation of factors, perhaps the most predictably profitable part of the publishing subdivisions of many conglomerates and when licensing of Star Trek or the Lucas properties is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The conservative nature of science fiction today is no longer an intimation, not even a standard. It is a necessity."
- Barry N. Malzberg, "L'Etat c'est moi," in The Engines of the Night, 1980

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Facial Tattoos and Social Change

Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 10/8/03, about the full facial tattoo in The Stars My Destination not being shocking today (or believable that it would be immediately shocking to others).

Now that kind of thing is a "problem" that used to bother me a lot, but which I have changed my mind about recently. I think there's a logical fallacy there: that since we in 2003 think tattooing is no big deal, that people in an invented future society would necessarily think tattooing is no big deal, and so any other attitudes are "wrong." That's not necessarily the case -- societies change in various ways, and go back and forth on all sorts of issues over time.

Admittedly, there is a kind of story in which the social attitudes of everyone in AD2500 is precisely the same as in the author's home town in the year he wrote the story -- and that, I agree, should be pointed out and called a defect (whether the story was written fifty years ago or yesterday). But I don't think The Stars, My Destination fits that category; the world is a solidly invented one and not merely 1955 with the serial numbers filed off.

Jack Vance, of course, is the canonical example of wildly differing social structures done well, but lots of SF writers have tried -- and succeeded, to various degrees -- to evoke different societies and people. So I don't think "these particular future people have different attitudes to we Usenet denizens today" is enough to claim a defect.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Things I'm Smug About Today

1) I know that the title of Jim Butcher's new novel is White Night. (No "K".) I can easily remember this because each of the "Dresden Files" books have two-word titles, and the two words always have the same number of letters. (I'm also smug because I read it a few months ago, and it kicks ass, but that's not the main point here...)

2) I know the difference between "prone" and "supine." (They are, roughly speaking, opposites, and the way to remember the difference is: "supine" means one is lying on one's spine.)

3) "Antepenultimate" is the coolest word in the universe. And every time a writer uses it correctly, an editor gets his wings.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Just Read: Working Stiff by Grant Stoddard

I've hit another "I don't want to read fiction" patch, and just spent about half an hour poking through my bookshelves looking for something to read next. (Not good enough but close: New Grub Street by George Gissing and Shadows of Blue & Gray by Ambrose Bierce.) The feeling was even worse Sunday night, so I chose something very frivolous to read.

This thing, in fact: Working Stiff by Grant Stoddard.

I picked it up as a bound galley from a giveaway shelf at work (and which is going back to that same shelf tomorrow). Stoddard was a young Englishman in 1998 (he's thus only a slightly older one now) when he moved to New York to be with his then-girlfriend and decided he wanted to stay here. He doesn't seem to have had much in the way of skills or aptitude (or desire, or motivation) for anything in particular, and eventually drifted into being a sex guinea pig columnist for Nerve.

There's a fair bit of deviant sex in the middle of the book, but the beginning is the usual "my life and hard times" crap, in which Stoddard explains who he is and how he got there (in a manner that made this reader just wish he'd get to the smutty stuff or at least do anything interesting and non-cliched). The sex stuff trails off near the end, too, as Stoddard tries to assess The Meaning of His Life.

So, yes, it is the standard sex worker memoir, only from the point of view of a guy who wrote a on-line column for three years, instead of being a dominatrix or porn star or something more obviously sex-worker-ish. It's only mildly lame, but I wish I'd been in a mood to read something more substantial two days ago. (Once I start a book for pleasure, I pretty much always finish it; I have managed to develop strategies to partially read books for work, but they don't really apply to something I'm reading ostensibly for my own enjoyment.)

And it is a memoir, not a collection of columns or anything else; I gather the actual sex stories are more detailed in the Nerve columns (which seem to all still be available online for free, unlike the book, which costs money and is only available on that old-fashioned paper stuff), but I haven't followed them. So only read this if you want the true story of one English lad's sexual awakening in (very) downtown Gotham.

Movie Log: Caddyshack

I'd never actually seen Caddyshack before; I guess I spent all my early '80s dumb-comedy time with Meatballs and Ghostbusters. (And this was an R-rated movie that came out when I was 11, so I couldn't officially see it for a while...and I have to admit, I had very little interest in golf then, or even now, which kept me away from it as well.)

But I'm watching a lot of old dumb comedies now, and catching up on the ones I missed. (I hope to catch up on serious movies eventually, but I haven't been in the mood to watch anything depressing alone recently -- and "serious" usually means "depressing," when it comes to movies.)

This is basically a generic shortish movie in the semi-serious Breaking Away mold, with a bunch of comedy subplots (Bill Murry as the gopher-hunting groundskeeper, Rodney Dangerfield as the rich jerk who might buy the country club, and so on) hanging loosely from various points, and (incidentally) providing most of the interest. In the time-honored comedy movie tradition, it apparently started off being a semi-straight golf movie with supporting roles for a bunch of funny people, and those actors ran away with the movie, since they were much more interesting on a minute-to-minute basis than the ostensible plot.

I suspect it's funnier seen in a crowd than alone, but it was pleasant enough by itself. It does feel very '80s to me, though, and not just in a "look at how young those people were" way. (And, if I were actually a feminist -- I'm not, though Vassar tried its damndest to make me one -- I'd comment on the very few roles for women here, including the one "hot slut" who manages to be the love sex interest for two of our main characters, sleeping with both of them to ensure that R-rating.)

I'll end with two things that puzzled me:
  1. Where is this movie supposed to be set? I might have missed some dialogue placing it -- and it's not that important anyway -- but I'd like to know. It seems to be in some generic suburbia that isn't near New York, but nothing more specific than that.
  2. And why does the hero's girlfriend have a thick Irish accent? Is she supposed to be straight off the boat? Was that a joke of some kind?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Movie Log: Meet the Robinsons

The boys were finally back to health and the streets cleared of floods on Saturday, so we went out to see the movie we'd planned on seeing two weeks ago: Meet the Robinsons.

It's not as good as it could be, but it's much better than the last Disney CGI effort, Chicken Little (which had a few good jokes and a nice look, but otherwise was a mess). It lost a bit of momentum when we saw it, since the picture cut out twice (and, the second time, the sound cut out too and the house lights came on for about five minutes). Come to think of it, I should also mention that we saw it in 3-D, because the boys love that, though I find it distracting and confusing. (I wear glasses, and my eyes are not of equal weakness, so 3-D often doesn't quite work for me. The more "3-D" this movie got, the more it hurt my eyes, which should be taken into account.)

Given all that, I liked Meet the Robinsons quite a bit, and probably would have liked it much better under perfect conditions. It's not a Pixar-level family movie, but, on the other hand, neither was Cars. (Robinsons is better than Cars, though it's close: the obvious message in Robinsons is beaten in with a somewhat larger sledgehammer, but the incidental humor in Robinsons is much more organic...and funny...than that in Cars.)

Speaking of that obvious message...I can't remember the last time the moral of a movie was underlined by actual fireworks. (And I am not kidding. Ouch.) I know that scene was supposed to be over-the-top, and therefore funny, but it was just painful and obvious in its "look at us, we've got a Good Message in this here movie, just like all those Christian talking vegetables do"-ness. If the message had actually been integrated into the movie, rather than sitting on top of it like an egg floating on a sea of breakfast-sausage grease, Robinsons could have been the best animated film since The Incredibles. OK, one other thing -- the Robinson family is very big, and introduced very quickly, and (even with the joke about that afterward) it doesn't quite work.

Even given those two failings, it's a very funny movie (both visually and verbally), with wonderful characters and a gorgeous look. (If William Joyce wanted to storyboard and production-design one animated movie a year, I'd be perfectly happy; his style lends itself very well to modern CGI.)

Let's see, what else? Oh, yes -- it's a time-travel movie, so certain expectations are set up. Anyone at all familiar with time-travel stories will see a certain plot twist coming a good half-an-hour before its revealed, but one does have to grant that this is a movie for kids. And the movie plays fair with the twist, so I'm not complaining about it: just pointing out how smart and savvy I am.

All in all, this is one of the better animated movies of recent years, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again on DVD eventually. (And, if I know my kids, seeing it again and again and again...)

Just Read: The Last Colony by John Scalzi

I have a longish post -- which I'm not sure if I'm going to publish -- called "Ruminations on the 'Old Man's War'-iverse," where I poke at the background details that have been bugging me since Old Man's War. (I seem to do this a lot; I have another unpublished post about Darkover, and there's one thing about Kage Baker's Company series I'm trying to put into the right words. I have the kind of mind that likes to have everything tied up in neat little packages, so when books I like have details I can't quite believe in, it's like a rash I have to keep scratching.)

Anyway, leaving my bizarre idiosyncrasies out of it, this is another swell adventure novel from Scalzi, ending the loose trilogy of Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. This is the one with the big revelations about the universe (my other post, if I ever publish it, is my attempt to avoid spoilering them while obsessing about some of the same issues), and quite a big finish.

I still think Ghost Brigades is the best of the three by a slim margin, but this is the kind of adventure novel that SF needs more of -- intelligent and fun, accessible and dealing with interesting skiffy questions. (Oh, and it's written in first person, which I usually like.)

It also was published less than a week ago, so all I should say about the plot is that John Perry is our narrator again (as in Old Man), and that he and Jane Sagan are tapped to lead a new colony...and then stuff happens.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I Talk Like Dis, Y'Hear?

Apparently, Jersey has not managed to completely ruin the pure English I learned in my cradle. Another meme, of course:

What American accent do you have?
Created by Xavier on

Northern. Whether you have the world famous Inland North accent of the Great Lakes area, or the radio-friendly sound of upstate NY and western New England, your accent is what used to set the standard for American English pronunciation (not much anymore now that the Inland North sounds like it does).

Take this quiz now - it's easy!
We're going to start with "cot" and "caught." When you say those words do they sound the same or different?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Just Read: Gods and Pawns by Kage Baker

I have now read four books by Baker in the last three months, and am finally caught up (if you don't count Rude Mechanicals...and I'm not, really, because I expect it'll turn up in a bigger collection in a couple of years).

Damn is she prolific these days. She's only been writing for about a decade, and, even with a hiccup while jumping between publishers in the middle, she's still managed to publish an eight-book series (plus two related collections of short fiction), another novel, and two other books of short stories.

Now, don't get the idea that I'm complaining, he said, oddly quoting Al Capone, I like it when authors I like are prolific. It's just some of them can write nearly as fast as I can read...

This is the second official "Company" story collection (after Black Projects, White Knights, but also after The Children of the Company, which is a fix-up of previously published stories with a little bit of new connective tissue), and it collects seven stories -- two of them original to this collection. They're mostly sidebars to the main storyline, as far as I can tell (since the main storyline has a lot of semi-separate threads to it), but the novella "Welcome To Olympus, Mr. Hearst" is pretty important to the big ending in The Sons of Heaven.

As usual with Baker, some of these stories are quite long -- three of the seven are novellas, one of which ("The Angel in the Darkness") was even published as a separate book. If you like lots of short stories that you can get through quickly, Baker is not your writer.

Nobody should start reading the Company books here, but, if you've read the others and are waiting for Sons of Heaven, this is a great way to pass some time.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Meme History of Genre

Even if John Klima didn't do my last meme, I still owe him a good dozen-or-so, and thus I'll do one of his. I tried not to look at his list before doing mine, but I'll go back afterward and see where we agree.

Instructions: Starting with 1890, list one book from each decade that you think represents the genre and the way it's moved from then to now.

I tried to pick the most influential and important book I could think of from each decade, rather than the one I liked the best, but that wasn't part of John's instructions; if this does attain meme status, I could see people doing it either way.

1890s1898The War of the WorldsH.G. Wells
1900s1908The House on the BorderlandWilliam Hope Hodgson
1910s1912A Princess of MarsEdgar Rice Burroughs
1920s1928"The Call of Cthulhu"H.P. Lovecraft
1930s1932Brave New WorldAldous Huxley
1940s1948Nineteen Eighty-FourGeorge Orwell
1950s1950The Martian ChroniclesRay Bradbury
1960s1961Stranger in a Strange LandRobert A. Heinlein
1970s1973Rendezvous With RamaArthur C. Clarke
1980s1985NeuromancerWilliam Gibson
1990s1996Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
J.K. Rowling
2000s2001Perdido Street StationChina Mieville

(I will note that I used the Ultimate Science Fiction Timeline to refresh my memory of what was when, and to keep from forgetting everything.)

I seem to have created an almost entirely science fictional list; that wasn't my intention, but it's the way things looked to me while I was doing the list. (I'm sure some of these would be different if I did it again tomorrow, though.)

Checking John's list, I see that we agreed on The House on the Borderlands and Neuromancer, but not otherwise. That's about par for the course.

Movie Log: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex *But Were Afraid To Ask

For whatever reason, the late '60s and early '70s were the heyday of ridiculously long movie "Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex *But Were Afraid To Ask", a minor early Woody Allen film that I somehow managed to miss watching when I was twelve (when I would have really appreciated it). I'm sort of vaguely wandering through the early movies of Allen these days, so I watched it last night.

It's also a great example of one of Hollywood's more endearing bits of folly: the idea that, simply because something (in this case, a book) was very successful in one medium it must be turned into a movie, which will then be even more successful. This works for things which have stories (particularly fiction), but tends to break down with objects such as...well, such as a popular question-and-answer book about sex, which is what this movie was very, very loosely based on.

Everything comprises seven separate vignettes (each around ten minutes long), all loosely inspired by a chapter title from the book. I'll warn anyone thinking about watching this that the first vignette, which features Woody Allen (also the director and writer) as a medieval Fool and Vanessa Redgrave as the randy Queen he's trying to get it on with, is by far the worst piece of the movie -- it's dull, unfunny, goes on too long, and is so dimly lit it's hard to see what's happening at times. The movie does get better from there.

In fact, the other six pieces are pretty good -- they're variable, but they're all funny at least in places, and the movie recovers the ground it lost in those boring first ten minutes. Gene Wilder has a great turn as a doctor who falls in love with a sheep, and the last section (with Tony Randall as the head of the crew inside a man's brain as he goes on a dinner-date and then has sex) is inventive and wonderful. But it's all so very '60s: this is the squinting look towards the sun of a culture that had tried to ignore sex for a good generation or more. (And still gets things wrong -- the "What is sodomy?" section is actually about bestiality, which is not at all the same thing.)

So, for someone my age, it's like looking at a time capsule of what my parents' generation thought sex was. And thinking of it that way is really creepy. Ew. Sorry I mentioned that.

Quote of the Week

"John W. Campbell, who must have thought about this too in his time, put it this way to one of the writers in the forties: 'People who read science fiction are crazy. We all know about that. And science fiction writers are even crazier. But when you talk about science fiction editors, well--'

A long Campbellian sigh.

- Barry N. Malzberg, "Grandson of the True and the Terrible," in The Engines of the Night

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I Guess I'll Take That As a Compliment...

John Klima has declined to do every single stupid meme I do -- and who can blame him? -- but he does say that he and I "look like starting linemen for SF's pro football team." (I can't fault that, either.)

So, who else would be on the SF pro football team? Do we have a good running back? Does anyone have the arm for quarterback? Anyone know how to punt? (I'm pretty sure Tom Doherty would be our Bill Parcells.)

OK, The Internet Is Now Officially Full

Because even the freakin' Sherrif of Nottingham has a blog.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Thought Experiment

Let's say that you are the cynical and secretive human interstellar government of a few hundred years hence. (Not too much of a stretch, yes?) You're not actively evil, but you're perfectly willing to do nasty things (or, though inaction, allow nasty things to happen). You're also in a state of war, and have been for some time.

What you need to do now is to plan a secret colony. For some handwave-y reason, hollowed-out asteroids, other kinds of space-based habitats, or anything involving non-Earthlike worlds is out. It has to be a shirtsleeve, dirt-farming colony, as God and Robert A. Heinlein intended.

Now, for good and sufficient reasons, you need to equip this colony with a lower tech level than they're used to. You can either pick an 1850 level, or a 1970 level. Other than pure "screw with the colonists" reasons, can you think of a reason not to pick the 1970 level? (They'd be, as far as I can see, of about equal difficulty, since all of the items in each package would have to be created from scratch in either case.)

A Puzzler

So, if your governor -- a guy you've never liked and didn't vote for, and who has a sense of personal entitlement larger than his personal fortune -- is seriously injured in a car-wreck in large part because he didn't wear a seatbelt and because he had the car's emergency lights on "to keep on his schedule" (against state law), are you required to feel sorry for the guy?

Just asking...

Update: According to news reports, that governor's car was going 91 in a 65 zone, so I'm now even less inclined to feel sorry for him.

You Keep Saying That. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

Yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said "There are no second acts in American lives." Yes, blowhards like to trot this out to deny it when talking about some media darling who is making a comeback. But they're all idiots, since that's not what Fitzgerald was talking about. Despite all of the misquotations, he did not say "second chances," and he did not mean "second chances."

An "act" is a theatrical conceit, and Fitzgerald was referring to the typical three-act play. American lives, in the Fitzgeraldian conception, have a first act (the set-up) and a third act (the climax), but they rush from one directly to the other without the usual building of tension and complexity in the middle. In other words, America is a land of smash hits and smash failures, one after another, without pause -- exactly what the people who quote that line to refute it are trying to say in their own stupid ways.

So cut it out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Meme, A Meme, I Do Confess 't

Liz Williams was doing it, so it's clearly our end of the alphabet's turn...

What do you think about Ouija boards? That random nerve twitches can be quite entertaining the certain types of people.

Your favorite TV shows? I only seem to watch TV these days with the kids, so probably Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy is starting to grow on me, too -- maybe I have a secret fondness for animated shows with long titles?

What’s on your mouse pad? At work, I use at SFBC mouse pad, just because. At home, I'm using one from some now-defunct groceries-over-the-Internet company (name now forgotten), because it was free, and because it still works fine.

Favorite board game: Scotland Yard, though I haven't played it in ages. I like Stratego, too, which I also haven't played in forever.

Favorite magazine: I guess The New York Review of Science Fiction, unless I can choose something now-defunct, like Spy from about 1989-1993 or Movieline in the early to mid-90s.

Favorite smells: {sings} "These are a few of my many smells, won't you come and smell me..." Pass.

Worst feeling in the world: That something horrible has happened to your wife or kids. (I'm a worrier, so I get this one a lot.)

Best feeling in the world: I've never felt that good, so I wouldn't know.

Favorite soundtrack: Akira.

What is the first thing you think when you wake in the morning: What I need to get accomplished at work that day.

Roller coaster - scary or exciting? Fun. Not scary, unless something goes very wrong. But not really "exciting," either. A good roller coaster is relaxing.

How many rings before you answer the phone? If The Wife has had the phone last (meaning that it's in some very unlikely place), I won't find it before it goes to the machine. If I put it back in the cradle where it belongs, then probably two rings. But it's not for me, anyway.

Future daughter’s name: Megan Elin.

Future son’s name: The one we didn't use for Thing 2 (The Wife talked me out of it) was Graham.

Favorite foods: Yes. Basically, anything a doctor has ever said was bad to eat.

Chocolate or vanilla? Chocolate chunks in vanilla.

Do you like to drive? Yes.

Do you sleep with a stuffed animal? Despite Thing 2's attempts, no. (His bed is piled full of them, and he occasionally gives me one at bedtime to keep me company at night.)

This is where I trot out my usual comment about the ages of people who take meme polls. What am I, a fourteen-year-old cheerleader?

Storms - cool or scary? Annoying, particularly when they drop eight inches of water on your head. They're only "scary" if you're under the age of twelve, and only "cool" if the roof over your head isn't your responsibility to fix if a tree falls on it.

What type was your first car: A deeply uncool metallic green 1998 Ford Windstar. It became "mine" about a year ago; I still drive it.

If you could meet one person dead or alive - who would it be? The live one. What do you think: I'm stupid?

Favorite alcoholic drink: Whiskey sour, these days.

What is your zodiac sign? Do not make me come over there and slap you.

Who is your favorite poet? Robert Browning

Do you eat the stems of broccoli? I try not to eat any part of broccoli, if I can avoid it. If I'm setting a good example for the boys, I'll eat the whole thing.

If you could have any job you wanted, what would it be? Something not unlike what I do now, only with much more money, power, and dancing girls. No, strike that. I'd like to be a robber baron, please.

If you could dye your hair any color, what would it be? The one that strikes people who write quizzes like this dumb.

Have you ever been in love? Yes.

What is on your walls in your room? In this room right here, four bookcases, a cork-board, various other important papers attached with tape, and a "Speed Limit: C" sign. At home, there really isn't a "my" room. I'm a grown-up.

Is the glass half empty or half full? I don't have a glass. My Snapple bottle from lunch is completely empty. Does that help?

What is your favorite Snapple? What a segue...plain.

Favorite movie(s): Love, Actually; Much Ado About Nothing; Gregory's Girl; The Dead; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Are you a lefty, righty, or ambidextrous? Right handed.

Do you type with your fingers on the proper keys? I don't even know which are the proper keys.

What’s under your bed? The floor. (The boys, through jumping on the bed, broke the frame and have done serious damage to the box spring as well.)

What is your favorite number? e. It's irrational like pi, but doesn't get the publicity.

Favorite sport to watch: Baseball, I guess, though I haven't watched a game since the kids were born.

Say one nice thing about the person who sent this to you: No one sent it to me; I grabbed it on my own. But I quite liked her novel Snake Agent.

Person you sent this to who is most likely to respond: John Klima is the one most likely to pick up memes from me, I think. I'm not officially sending it to anybody.

Person you sent this to least likely to respond: See above.

Favorite quote: "Now when I was a boy, my Daddy sat me on his knee, and he told me, he told me many things, and he said, 'Son, there's a lot of things in this world that you're gonna have no use for. And when you get blue, and you've lost all your dreams, there's nothing like a campfire and a can of beans!'" (Tom Waits, Lucky Day)

In Case There Was Any Doubt...

How evil are you?

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Gods of Transportation Hate Me

It's beginning to look like I'll need to sacrifice some kind of small animal to the spirits of motorized conveyance, so any suggestions as to what animals, rituals, and/or deities would be most efficacious will be greatly appreciated.

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of My Day of Transportation Woe:

You may have heard that we got a little bit of rain in these parts yesterday, so, when I went out to wait for a bus this morning, I determined not to be my usual picky self -- no, I would take the first bus that came by, even if that was a local, since my usual express would be sure to be delayed if not missing entirely. I did get on a local, after only waiting at the stop for about ten minutes. The bus made its usual poky way, and I got to reading. Sometime later, a passenger paying better attention jumped up and asked the driver why he was traveling west on Route 46, when New York was to our east. The driver's answer: oops, he'd forgotten what route he was driving.

We made it into the city with only minor delays after we got ourselves correctly oriented. (That is: pointed east.) I narrowly missed another Transport Disaster when I dashed onto the NRQW platform at Times Square to find trains on both sides...but I took a second to realize that they were a N and a Q, both expresses. So I waited for an R, and arrived safely, and only about half-an-hour late, at my building.

Where the elevators weren't working. And the emergency back-up passenger elevator in the back of the building was also not working. I fought my way into the second freight-car load and got up to my floor, where a colleague muttered darkly about not being able to get out to the company's main offices on Long Island...and I remembered that I had meetings in that office that very afternoon!

Soon it was noon, and time to leave for the train to beautiful, bucolic Garden City. Strangely, we got a roomy and pleasant taxi almost immediately. Almost as if Someone was toying with me...

The train ride out was uneventful, and the meetings had events, but not any worth mentioning here.

Then it was three o'clock. The last meeting had just ended. We thought the train was at 3:06. We rushed through the rain to the platform! And then waited a few minutes before checking our train schedules and learning that, while there are quite commonly trains at six minutes past the hour, the next train at that time of day was at 3:41. Dejection set in.

But wait! I exclaimed. We can take the bus on Franklin Avenue to the Mineola station! The trains from that station are swift and true, and one need not change trains at Jamaica (of cursed name)! So we tramped back to the other side of the building, to wait for a bus.

And wait.

And wait.

And then tramp back to the train platform, just in time for the aforementioned 3:41, after the only bus to come into sight had the fateful words "NOT IN SERVICE" emblazoned in fiery orange on its forecastle.

We took the train. We changed at Jamaica. The train was just late enough that I had no chance to catch my usual bus at 4:45. (When I reached the Port Authority Bus Terminal, large signs informed me to expect 30-minute delays. But, through long and painful experience, I have learned that this means that all previous buses have left on time -- they will not be delayed -- but that your bus might well take quite some time to arrive.) As it was, I got on the next bus -- another local, a fateful local, leaving only a few minutes after its scheduled 5:10 departure.

We made good time...until we broke down at about 5:40 on the side of Route 46. (Remember Route 46? It's a song about Route 46.) The bus garage promised to send out a new bus and a tow truck. Other buses were instructed to stop and pick up we sad passengers.

Did those buses stop? No, they did not -- they went whizzing by for the next hour.

Did the tow truck arrive? Actually, it did, but it couldn't tow the bus with us on it, so that didn't help much.

Did the replacement bus arrive? Not for more than an hour. So we sad passengers dragged ourselves onto the replacement bus, and continued on our way. Nearly everyone got off in the town of Wayne, and the few of us left gathered at the front of the bus in anticipation of getting home.

Did I mention the rain before? It rained yesterday. It rained a lot. I live in a town called Pompton Lakes, which has three rivers flowing through it. Flowing with all sorts of bends and curves. Oh, and there's this big lake -- couldn't guess from the name, could you? -- which also tends to fill up when there's water about, which, as I said, was the case yesterday. So water levels were rising in all sorts of odd parts of my town...including up to a major bridge leading from Pompton Lake into the mighty Pequannock River. I usually get off my bus right after it passes over that bridge. Usually.

So I saw a huge line of traffic backed up, and I realized, being not completely stupid, that my bridge must be closed to vehicular traffic. This is fine, I said to the driver, I'll get off here.

So I did. I walked along the road -- much faster than the two lines of bumper-to-bumper cars, I'm happy to say, crossed the road, and tried to walk in through an alternate route. (This would be another, smaller bridge, which I could see had some water in front of it but was clear itself.) So I trudged through about four inches of water in the middle of a side road, got up onto the bridge, and saw...about two feet of water in the middle of the road, going up at least two streets. And I turned around again, walked back through the water, back up to the main road, and continued along (still well ahead of my bus, though).

I made it to the bridge, when a loudly amplified voice told me it was closed to pedestrian traffic. I tried to reason with the friendly policeman, making note of my slim build and light-hearted demeanor, and claiming I could flit across the bridge with barely a touch of my doe-like foot.

He did not agree, and made dark references to his handcuffs. He gestured towards a PSE&G truck, with airy references to gas lines under the bridge, and the amount of paperwork he would have to fill out if I managed to blow myself, and the bridge, up. I pleaded, pointing out that my home was only about three block -- three dry blocks, in that direction (I pointed). He stood firm.

We finally agreed that I would re-join the line of traffic (remember the line of traffic? imagine it oozing by, very slowly, during this whole section) by getting on a bus and seeing where the detour would take me.

That bus, just coming up to the intersection before the bridge, was, by an odd twist of fate, my bus -- not the one I had been on previously (which was still a quarter of a mile back, in the oozing traffic), but my usual bus, the one filled with the bosom companions of my youth (or, at least, a bunch of people I know well enough to nod at now and then). I quickly joined them, and we swapped tales of woe -- their bus had left on time at 4:45, but had been trapped by rising waters on Route 23, and had spent the last two and a half hours (it was now nearly 8) going little more than five miles.

Well, the detour wasn't all that bad -- I got onto the bus just as it got to the final merge, so it was much less oozy at that point -- and the detour followed pretty much the path I'd expected, into the middle of my town. At least a mile, maybe two, past my house. And the bus wasn't going backwards. So, those of us whose stops had been bypassed got off, and trudged backwards.

I finally got home -- the one who walked back the furthest -- at about 8:30, only three hours later than usual. (After leaving a meeting at 3:00, mind you.)

And that's why I think I need to slaughter a goat to appease ol' Poseidon (or whomever). How was your day?